Tag Archives: doodles

Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts

Doodling is something we all do, from time to time, often without realising. Listening to someone on the phone or perhaps attending a meeting (or class), we scribble, rather haphazardly and spontaneously, squiggly lines, random words, and mini drawings. The practice is quite old. Doodled squiggly lines and mini drawings are encountered frequently in medieval books, mostly in the margins or on flyleaves. The one in Figure 1 was added to the lower margin of a manuscript with Juvenal’s Satires. Its style resembles our modern stick figures and it may just be the artistic creation of a child.

Figure 1. Doodle in the lower margin of a medieval page (Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, 368 (15th century). Source

In spite of the parallel with modern times, the rationale behind doodling in manuscripts is usually very different. Exceptions such as the one in Figure 1 aside, the medieval practice of doodling has little to do with boredom or absent-minded pen movements. They are calculated products of the pen, executed with a particular goal in mind.

Why Pen Trials?

The answer to this question lies in the two tools wielded by medieval scribes more than any other instrument. In miniatures scribes are often shown with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other, such as the hermit seen copying text from an exemplar in Figure 2. (Note, incidentally, the handy paraphernalia he has at his disposal, like the slider that helped him keep track of the line he was supposed to copy.) Here we see the scribe using the tip of the knife to keep the parchment in place: using his hands would release oily grease onto the writing surface, which would subsequently prevent the ink from sticking properly.

Royal 14 E III f.6v
Figure 2. Scribe at work, pen and knife in hand (London, British Library, Royal 14 E.iii, 14th century). Source

An equally important use of the knife, however, was to adjust the nib; and it is here that the origins of the pen trial – and the doodle – are found. After some time, a few hours perhaps, the nib became dull and it needed to be cut again in order to produce crisp letters. After trimming the nib, the scribe tested his pen to check that it had the right width and to make sure there would be no streaks of white visible within the strokes of the letters. For this testing process he turned to an empty piece of paper or parchment and scribbled down some squiggly lines or short words. The process was quick and routine among scribes across medieval Europe (Figure 3).

BPL 111 I
Figure 3. Two flyleaves filled with pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 111-I, 13th-15th centuries). Photo by the author


Pen trials, which are most often encountered on flyleaves in the back of manuscripts, can be quite appealing. As it happened, scribes did not just write down squiggly lines or words when testing their pens, but they even produced modest works of art. In Leiden University Library some great “artistic” specimens are encountered. In the back of BPL 111-I, for example, we find a collection of large initial letters with faces inside them (Figure 3). It includes a letter B with two monks (note the tonsures), a D with a stern-looking lady wearing a pointy hat, a bearded person in a letter S, and a duck containing a long-nosed man. This page and the facing one are filled with dozens of pen trials. The shapes of the letters and the ink colour suggests that the doodles on these pages were produced by a limited number of individuals, perhaps two or three, which is in line with what we commonly see on flyleaves that contain pen trials.

The two pages in the back of BPL 111-I are also in line with broader European traditions regarding the kind of tests they contain. We encounter single letters and words, as well as nonsensical phrases (“e,” “egi de e,” “ego panne,” “autem”). Another popular theme is also found in Figure 3: musical notation (somewhat out of focus near the top of the picture). The square notes of the Middle Ages were perfect for testing the nib, because they naturally showed how wide it was, while the short square shape also invited the scribe to execute a series of quick test strokes. Common also are the little specks visible in Figure 3: you can vaguely see them in the white zone below the initial letters. These result from tapping the quill on the parchment, probably in an attempt to adjust the nib by “tapping” it into shape.

Figure 4. Pen trials by a high volume of individuals (Cambridge, Parker Library, MS 223, p. 338, twelfth century). Source


While the pen trials in Figure 3 were executed by perhaps two or three individuals, there could be far more scribes involved. Figure 4 shows a page in a ninth-century manuscript. Present in the back of the last quire, it was left blank because the text had already ended. Some three centuries later, likely in the second half of the twelfth century, the page was filled with pen trials by least fifteen scribes. We are probably looking at a group of individuals in the same scriptorium, who favoured very different “doodles” for testing their pen, from alphabets to a small portrait. And the musical notation appears as well, at various locations. A similar case where a large group of individuals share the same empty page is found in a set of manuscripts from Rochester Priory in Kent, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Bodley 340 and 342 (Figure 5). Several individuals from the early twelfth-century wrote down short passages on their flyleaves, including – with a peculiar sense of appropriateness – the phrase probatio pennae, “I test my pen” (near the top of the detail shown in Figure 5).

Oxford_Bodley 340
Figure 5. Pen trials by several twelfth-century scribes in Rochester Priory, Kent (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 340, f. 169v, detail).

Groups of pen trials from a medieval scriptorium can be important sources of information about scribal practices and the backgrounds of scribes. Those in the back of Bodley 340 and 342, for example, show that the scriptorium of Rochester Abbey was filled with individuals who were trained across the European Continent, including in Germany, Holland and Italy (see Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight”). This verdict is based on the letter shapes of the pen trials, which reveal where their makers are from: scribes were trained to produce slightly different letter shapes all over Europe, which shows in the pen trials. By proxy, the page in Figure 5 highlights the ethnical diversity of the monks in Rochester Abbey.

Test Sheets

Sometimes one encounters truly special collections of pen trials. Leiden University Library holds a loose double-leaf filled with an unusual amount of them (Figure 6). Its existence adds significantly to our understanding of medieval pen trials. One may be inclined to think that scribes always turned to empty pages in the back of existing manuscripts and filled them pen trials. While this happened, as the previous cases show, there is also another practice at play. The Leiden sheet suggests that scribes also used loose – i.e. unbound – sheets, which likely lay on their desk. Some of these “test sheets” were repurposed and turned into flyleaves, making it look, to somebody observing the pen trials today, as if they were directly written into the book.

Figure 6. Upper half of a flyleaf filled with dozens of pen trials (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 3327, 22, 15th century). Photo by the author

This particular test sheet was filled to the brim with several hundred pen trials: there are more than I have ever seen in one location (note that Figure 6 shows only a detail). When one looks carefully, running themes can be observed across the page, sometimes clustered in the same location. There is the large capital letter H that is frequently drawn, especially near the top of the page; and there are recurring human figures as well, such as a grumpy lady, a man with curly hair, and a few bishops. Another theme is the nota sign, the attention sign that is encountered in the margins of manuscripts: quite a few are observed under the two red arches (they look like “nt” with a curly line over top). There are as many as ten individuals at work on this sheet, which suggests this sheet, too, was used in a scriptorium.

Figure 7. Fifteenth-century test sheet used as flyleaf (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, PER 16). Photo by the author

Another test sheet is seen in Figure 7. It was used by a single scribe, who used the crumbly sheet to write down letters, parts of religious verses, and non-sensicle expressions. Here the earlier purpose is clearly visible through the rough and well-used appearance of the flyleaf. It concerns a piece that was ripped off of a larger paper sheet and subsequently used for testing the pen. At a later stage it was repurposed as a flyleaf. Figures 6 and 7 show us the far ends of the spectrum of medieval test sheets: some were inhabited with words and doodles by a group of individuals, as indicated by the variations in ink color, letter shape, and nib width, while others were tools used by single scribes.

This is an expanded and modified version of a post that first appeared on Leiden Medievalists Blog.

Read more about pen-trials:

Erik Kwakkel, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Continental Scribes in Rochester Cathedral Priory, 1075-1150,” in Writing in Context: Insular Manuscript Culture, 500-1200, ed. Erik Kwakkel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Book Culture (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2013), 231-61.

The Last Page of the Medieval Book

I love the last page of the medieval book. Not because it means that my research of a particular manuscript is almost completed, but because the last page often provides information pertaining to the origins of the object – information not normally found elsewhere in the manuscript. This post, which discusses some of this information, is devoted to the last text page of a manuscript as well as the last physical page of the book – which are, perhaps surprisingly, not usually the same thing.

The Last Page of the Text
The last page of the text was a podium where the scribe could state information about himself and the circumstances of the book’s production. While few scribes seized this opportunity (about one in seven do say something), such added information, collected in what we call a “colophon”, can enrich our knowledge of a manuscript considerably. Some colophons provide a glance into the reality of the scriptorium or urban workshop, where a scribe toils over a piece of parchment. Well known are colophons that state such cries as “Please give me a drink!” or “Let my right hand be free from pain!” (see Fig. 1 and this MedievalFragments post).

Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5 (pic Giulio Menna)
Fig. 1 – Scribal colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLF 5, 15th century (Photo: Giulio Menna)

More telling are colophons where a scribe lifts the veil and allows us to peek into his or her working space. The Paris artisan Herneis states on the last page of a book he copied: “If someone else would like such a handsome book, come and look me up in Paris, across from the Notre Dame cathedral” (see Fig. 2 and this MedievalFragments post). There are other cases where a commercial scribe advertises his work. One from mid-fifteenth-century Holland copied the same book up to eight times (the historical books of the Old Testament), showing that his labor is a commercial enterprise. At the end of one of these he writes: “If there is somebody who would like a copy of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide it for payment, because it is beautiful” (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1006, fol. 455r).

Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th c)
Fig. 2 – Advertisement by Herneis le Romanceur, professional scribe in Paris (Giessen, UB, 945, 13th century)

While Herneis in Paris was spamming a general audience, telling them where to go for a good book, the anonymous scribe in Holland was likely addressing the individual for whom he just copied the Old Testament. When the reader got to the end of the last page, he stumbled into this not-so-subtle recommendation for more good stuff – not unlike what happens when you search for a good read on Amazon: “If you like that book, you will love this one!”

As exciting as these examples are, the really important colophons are those that read like a title page. The colophon in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541 is an example of a particularly rich source of information about how the manuscript came to be. The colophon on the last page states: “Pray for the person who made this book, which was completed in 1484 in the city of Maaseik, where we were taking refuge after our convent had burned down” (Fig. 3). These few lines provide a wealth of information, most importantly when and where the book was made, but even something extra about the life (and suffering) of the scribe, who recently lost her home in a fire.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century
Fig. 3 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2541, 15th century (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

The Last Page of the Book
The second kind of last page that this post highlights is the actual last page of the book. As you can see in Fig. 3, the end of the last page sometimes coincides with the end of the book, or at least with the original medieval part of it. What also happens, quite frequently, in fact, is that the last text page is followed by one or more medieval flyleaves. These are often the remaining blank leaves of a last quire, which were left in place as an extra layer of protection. Flyleaves could also be added, usually in the form of a bifolium that was fixed in between the last quire and the board, to which half of the bifolium was appended as a pastedown.

The empty flyleaf – the actual last page of the medieval book – is usually a feast to look at. It was the ideal location to test your pen, to doodle on, or to add informal notes. Some librarians favoured putting the title of the book on the last page, as in Fig. 4, where the librarian wrote “Paterius de opusculis sancta Gregorii” in a book filled with excerpts from works by Gregory the Great.

St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)
Fig. 4 – St Gall, Stifsbibliothek, MS 241, p. 180 (note on contents, 13th century)

Far more entertaining (for us) are, of course, the famous doodles that were frequently placed on flyleaves. Testing the pen was a common occurrence, given that the quill had to be cut several times per day. Scribes turned to the last page of a nearby book to jot short sentences of doodle little drawings to see if the nib’s cut was in order. Interestingly, some of these trials seem to combine testing the pen and trying out decorative elements. A good example of this is the page shown in Fig. 5.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I (14th-century doodles)
Fig. 5 – Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodles (Photo: Erik Kwakkel)

While testing his pen, the scribe of these lovely doodles actually produced shapes that would not be out of place on an actual text page as decoration. It is almost as if he was refining a skill while also dealing with the nib of his pen. After all, a nib could be tested with just a few squiggly lines. Thus the last page of the book becomes a test ground for artistic creations: it makes for an attractive last thing to glance at before closing the book.

Note: This was originally posted as my last contribution to the collaborative research blog MedievalFragments. A companion piece on “The First Page of the Medieval Book” can be read here.